Shad Khan sits four days from completing what amounts to a football facelift of the star-crossed organization he bought nine years ago. He leveraged the assets his previous regime amassed into landing a legendary coach in January who was heavily sought-after at two levels of the sport, and, on Thursday, he and that coach will use the most precious of those assets, the first pick in the draft, on the most precious asset a team can have.
The Jaguars’ owner wasn’t going to confirm for me, as we talked on Saturday, what we all believe has been a fait accompli for more than two years now: that Trevor Lawrence will be the first pick in the 2021 draft. But he also wasn’t denying what we’ve all assumed since the former Clemson quarterback slayed the Alabama dragon in January 2019, knowing that the league wants him to keep the obvious a secret for the benefit of its television show.
“If you know anything about football, if you know anything about the Jaguars, yeah,” Khan said with a laugh, acknowledging the widespread assumption. “But this is a decision that, Albert, it’s gonna define us, certainly for the rest of my life. And everything I read and hear from people who know a lot more about football than I do, for them, it’s like stating the obvious.”
Somehow, Lawrence has become something of a forgotten man during this draft cycle.
It’s not that we haven’t talked about him—we have. More so, it’s that normally what fills debate show blocks, and sports radio segments this time of year is who should go where, and whether this prospect is worth spending that pick on. And with Lawrence, really, there hasn’t been any of that.
He’s going first. He’s more worthy of going first than anyone since Andrew Luck. The end.
And therein lies the opportunity sitting before Khan and his franchise. Like the Broncos’ 1983 trade for John Elway turned Denver into a standard-bearer NFL franchise, and as you could argue the Colts’ selection of Peyton Manning turned Indiana from a basketball state into a football state, Thursday night could change the course Khan’s franchise forever. And the owner, for his part, isn’t backing down from the daunting idea of that.
“The Jaguars, being among the two youngest teams in the league, I can talk about my nine years—it’s by far the most important time for the Jaguars,” Khan continued. “That’s why I think having Urban [Meyer] leading the team, and where we ended up with the season, I knew that this would be arguably the most important decision I’d be making, maybe in my lifetime. How the stars aligned … it’s something that can really secure the future for the Jacksonville Jaguars.”
Good thing Lawrence is pretty used to playing under pressure.
Welcome in to the final MMQB column before the 2021 draft. We’ve got a lot to get to here, including …
• A detailed look at where all 32 teams stand going into the draft.
• A ton of nuggets on which way the draft could go, all the way through the first round.
• Senior Bowl chief Jim Nagy’s feel for the class of 2021.
• The possibility of a Julio Jones trade on the horizon.
• Both sides of Friday’s trade of Orlando Brown, who was shipped from Baltimore to K.C.
• Steve Sarkisian on Alabama’s skill-position stars.
And a whole lot more. But we’re starting in Jacksonville, and where this offseason has taken the Jaguars.
Khan has to go back—way back—to find where the wheels on this monumental offseason began, and the first memory he has of Meyer stirring a blip on his radar. Khan’s an Illinois alum and has remained close to his alma mater since his 1971 graduation. As such, he was friendly with Illini athletic director Ron Guenther, and Guenther, years ago, recalled to him during a coaching search that Meyer’s mentor, Earle Bruce, had recommended the twentysomething assistant while the two worked together at Colorado State.
Now, hearing about a promising young assistant, and handing the keys to your organization to a coach, are two things so different it’s not even worth equating one to the other. But the mention did register, for Khan, as the first in a series of memories he has of Meyer.
Meyer would eventually wind up back in the Big Ten, landing the job at Ohio State, in fact, the day before Khan finalized his purchase of the Jaguars in November 2011. From there, Khan saw Meyer socially from time to time through his association with his alma mater. And in early 2019, after Meyer left Ohio State, he noticed the tone of the conversation started to get more serious.
Meyer was asking more pointed questions about how NFL teams work, and the two were at an event where then Jags exec Tom Coughlin spoke about his own team-building philosophy. And a year later, at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, the two ran into each other again, and the dynamic flipped—with Khan now looking to learn from Meyer.
“I listened to him, and then, really, it never quite dawned on me [he might want to go to the NFL],” Khan said. “By that time, we’d moved on from Tom Coughlin, and I had taken on a more hands-on role in how we restructured the team. And then, it’s what do we do? And he talked about what he was picking up from his players in the NFL, and really some reflection. We’d won six games the year before, and with everything we did, I had no idea which way we’d be going.”
The two stayed in touch. And in midseason, with the Jaguars mired deep in a losing streak, they had a conversation that wound up sticking with him.
“I was really more interested—he was a Fox analyst—in getting his take on Justin Fields as a quarterback,” Khan said. “I never thought we’d have the top pick, but it was looking like we’d have a top five pick, and it was very obvious we’d need a quarterback. I got a lot of his insight. And the thing that’d really kind of been in my mind, why doesn’t Ohio State produce—and Dwayne Haskins is a great example, to be blunt—quarterbacks? And then with other quarterbacks, why are they good?
“Some of that insight, I really wanted to get from him.”
He got more than just that. He got to hear Meyer talk about the game. He heard how objective he was: You really ought to look at the BYU quarterback [Zach Wilson] too, Meyer told Khan. He could feel Meyer’s energy for talking about the NFL. And as we all know now, thanks to how the rest of the season played out (the Jags didn’t win another game), Khan would soon be sitting on the most attractive job opening in the league for 2021.
Khan’s a smart man, and really to anyone who pays attention to the NFL, it would be obvious how attractive his job openings were—the new coach and GM would have the first pick in six of the draft’s seven rounds, multiple picks in the first, second, fourth and fifth rounds, the most cap space in the league and the right to draft a quarterback prospect coming into the league with grades close to rarified air Elway, Manning and Luck occupied.
But if he needed a reminder? He got it quickly as the Jags’ 2020 season circled the drain.
“I gotta tell you, I’ve never felt more popular,” he said. “I heard it from people, and I sensed it. I had a lot of people calling. Some of the coaches I knew, some I didn’t know, a lot of them gainfully employed, some friends, some acquaintances. And I thought to myself, I can’t screw this thing up. We have to nail this. I’d had a lot of chats with [Meyer] on what I think it’ll take, his insight. And then we interviewed a lot of people, as you know, because I know he’s a legend in college football, but I don’t want to set him up to fail.
“And, frankly, I don’t want to be set up to fail either.”
As they went through the process, Meyer showed Khan a list of people who’d called to gauge his interest in returning to coaching. It was extensive, which basically crystallized the situation—matching a highly sought-after coach with a highly sought-after job.
But that didn’t mean the whole thing was a slam dunk. Meyer, of course, had to consider the ramifications of returning to the sidelines. And Khan had to be clear, too, on how he saw the organization setting up around the coach.
“And I explained to him, coach-centric, but not really having the GM reporting to the coach—I have a whole book on why, really, that sets the coach up for failure,” Khan said.
“I explained all that to him, what I thought the structure should be, how it would work. We had a chance to reset it. But he had to want it, he had to be driven—which he did and is. It has to work.”
The urgency with which Khan spoke of the decision mirrors what he’s seen in the building since. While Meyer publicly lamented not being able to recruit free agents like he could high school kids at Florida or Ohio State—NFL free agency moves too fast for that—Khan observed that certain free agents wanted what Meyer was going to sell, and others stayed away from it.
So almost organically, because Meyer’s program is so well-known, those who didn’t fit what he was looking for got weeded out.
“We had a couple players who didn’t want to come in free agency because they know they’re not going to be coming and collecting a check, they’re going to have to work,” Khan said. “In the past, we had players who signed up because money’s a big part of it. And we have some who probably could’ve gotten a better deal but came here because they want to win and they want to play for Urban. And then we had some the other way around.
“Which I love, because we don’t want players coming for the wrong reasons, just I’m getting a big paycheck. I mean, we want them to get that, but we also want them to come to win.”
And already, Khan sees all of that taking root.
“It’s so different. You can cut the difference with a knife,” Khan said. “And I’m not just talking about physical things, like the signs are different. The players absolutely are motivated to want to come in, work out, and obviously whether it’s the training room, nutrition, all the other stuff, that’s changed. It’s such a different vibe, with how you work with the players, how you meet their needs, how we’re all aligned.
“It’s describable, but it’s indescribable. … You don’t know what world-class coaching is until you’re smack-dab in the middle of it. And you can see why. He’s at Bowling Green—which I always thought was Bowling Green, Kentucky, and then I found out, it’s Bowling Green, Ohio. When had Utah had that success? It’s everywhere he’s been.”
All of which sets the stage for the arrival of the quarterback (spoiler: Lawrence).
Last week, Meyer declined to confirm that Lawrence will be the pick, saying that the final decision is up to Khan, which drew a laugh from the boss when we talked.
He and his new coach first talked about Lawrence before Meyer was even hired, and it’s not like it’s hard to find evidence of what Meyer thinks about the Clemson star. But Meyer was also direct with Khan in that, at the time of his hire, there was a lot more work to do. “He said, You gotta do a deep dive on him.”
And Khan took an active role in that dive, having communicated with the (expected) future Jaguar over Zoom the last couple of months.
“I was really blown away,” Khan said. “I spoke to Trevor on Zoom in a very pleasant way, his sense of humility, his absolute drive. He wants to make a difference, in the community and, obviously, most importantly, on the gridiron.”
Which, really, leaves Khan, Meyer and GM Trent Baalke with one thing to do.
“I know what I’ve read, that [Meyer said] the owner’s gotta pull the key,” Khan said. “The key hasn’t been turned over to me. We’re in this together. I was there this week, we talked about that, and there’s nothing more that I could add other than what Urban has said and Trent has said.”
What they won’t say, again, is the obvious.
But short of that, everyone knows what’s on the line here. Getting the Meyer hire right will be tied to getting the Lawrence pick right, and vice versa. And it’s not overstating this entire circumstance to say the Meyer hire is the biggest acquisition Khan has made as the team’s owner, and it’s about to be trumped three months later.
“I mean, it’s surreal,” Khan said. “It’s like you can see the promised land. But I gotta tell you, three years ago, we were in the [AFC] championship game, and so, so close to being in the Super Bowl. I mean, hard to believe—three years ago! So this, it’s different. All the pieces are aligned, this isn’t a one-off, you’re setting the path for sustainable success.”
And that little fact that we haven’t talked about Lawrence that much the last few months, given that he’s going to be the first pick? It only underlines the opportunity in front of everyone in Jacksonville.
EVERY TEAM’S DRAFT NEEDS
As was the case last year, we’re separating out my mock draft from the Monday morning column. But since it’s the start of draft week, I figured it’s important to give all of you a look at how your team will be approaching things next week. So in an effort to do that, and give you a lot to chew on, we’re going to bring back a modified version of The All-32 we used to run in the column.
It’ll be in the order of picks. Enjoy …
First round: 1st, 25th
Total picks: 10
Needs: QB, edge, S, TE
What you need to know: Baalke has a history, from San Francisco, of stacking pass rushers. So even with K’Lavon Chaisson and Josh Allen on hand, other teams have their eyes on the Jags potentially trying to scoop up a pass rusher at No. 25 (after they make Lawrence the first pick). It’s also worth noting that Penn State’s Jayson Oweh was recruited by Meyer out of high school, and fits the kind of freaky athletic profile Meyer coveted as a college coach.
New York Jets
First round: 2nd, 23rd
Total picks: 10
Needs: QB, CB, edge
What you need to know: BYU’s Zach Wilson seems destined to be the pick here—but the league consensus isn’t overwhelming that it should be. I talked to four teams over the last week, that don’t need quarterbacks, that have Justin Fields in front of him. That said, Wilson’s a very strong scheme fit for new OC Mike LaFleur, and has a unique, Aaron Rodgers-ish style to his play. With the second of the first-rounders, listen to what one ex-Robert Saleh co-worker said to me the other day: “Saleh can never have enough edge guys.” So even with Carl Lawson aboard, if one of the edge rushers slides, it’s not hard to see GM Joe Douglas doing his coach a solid and scooping whoever that might be up.
San Francisco 49ers
First round: 3rd
Total picks: 9
Needs: QB, CB, DL
What you need to know: I’ve had a bunch of NFL people say to me over the last week: “They can’t be taking Mac Jones, right?” What I haven’t had is anyone say they’ve actually heard the Niners are going in another direction. Jones isn’t fast of foot, but the speed with which he operates out there on the field should inform you on what Kyle Shanahan sees in the Alabama star. I can say, without any doubt, that the Niners didn’t know who they were taking when they made the trade up in late March. But I have to believe they had a leader in the clubhouse. I believe it was Jones and, as of right now, have no reason to think they’ve moved off of him. (That said, nothing would really shock me, with Trey Lance widely seen as a scheme fit, and Fields an otherworldly athlete).
First round: 4th
Total picks: 9
Needs: TE, RB, edge
What you need to know: The drumbeat for Florida’s Kyle Pitts has grown louder here, and a good number of other clubs believe he’ll be the fourth pick. Three breadcrumbs we can leave for you here. One, GM Terry Fontenot has done some relationship-building with Matt Ryan that, really, seems to indicate the Falcons aren’t desperate to move on from him in nine months (the contract restructure sends a similar message), and Ryan has been a steady presence in the building the last few weeks. Two, word is the asking price to move up to No. 4 is high, which would indicate Atlanta might not be rushing to move the pick. And then there’s where Arthur Smith made his bones—coaching tight ends. For what it’s worth, the buzz around the NFL has been that Fontenot and Smith are comfortable going forward with Ryan, if that’s where Atlanta lands. But if the right quarterback falls here? Who knows?
First round: 5th
Total picks: 8
Needs: OL, WR, LB, edge
What you need to know: Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell? The Bengals sent personnel chief Duke Tobin to LSU’s pro day, and coach Zac Taylor’s only pro days this year were at Florida and Oregon. I also know, for the team, part of the equation has been what might be available for them at No. 38 and No. 69—in other words, if Chase is the pick, then what linemen will be there later, and vice versa? And one other thing that’s interesting, and I’ve heard this from a few people, is how people at LSU seem confident that Chase is going fifth. Right now, I’d go with Chase being picked here, while reserving the right to change my mind.
First round: 6th, 18th
Total picks: 9
Needs: WR, TE, RB, edge
What you need to know: GM Chris Grier did a nice job moving the third pick for a bounty, then getting back up to No. 6. And there’s been word in league circles that he did it with two players in mind. I don’t know which two, but my guess would be Pitts and Chase. If both are gone, I’d imagine a trade back could come into play—if Miami can find a partner. A lineman or even one of the Alabama receivers wouldn’t totally floor me here. And at No. 18, my guess would be a front-seven player for the defense. Penn State’s Micah Parsons probably won’t make it there, but I’d bet Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah might intrigue Brian Flores as a movable Patrick Chung-type of chess piece for his defense, as could Tulsa’s Zaven Collins as a strong linebacker fit. (I’ve heard Alabama’s Najee Harris connected to Miami, too.)
First round: 7th
Total picks: 6
Needs: LB, WR, OL, S
What you need to know: The Lions are the team in the top 10 hungriest for a trade down—and that makes sense, given they’re working with just a half-dozen picks. Very few people who know Dan Campbell believe the receiver need will be addressed this high. More likely, as I see it, would be either Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater. The other name I’ve heard here is Parsons’s, which connects to Chris Spielman’s influence in the new Brad Holmes/Campbell regime.
First round: 8th
Total picks: 7
Needs: OT, CB, DT, WR
What you need to know: Owner David Tepper has been shown to favor throwing resources at getting the quarterback spot right once and for all, both with those inside the organization and out, so I see this as the floor for Fields—if he’s there, I think the Panthers will take him or move the pick (do not ignore Matt Rhule’s boat trip with Jimmy Johnson, and what Johnson might’ve told him about moving down in the draft) to someone who will, with an outside shot that someone from No. 11 to 14 comes up here to get one of the top two tackles. Absent that, I’d say it’ll be Slater or Sewell. And if those two are gone, a corner.
First round: 9th
Total picks: 9
Needs: QB, DL, edge/LB
What you need to know: Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback. I think Fields or Lance would be a possibility for Denver, and maybe they’d even see it being worth a short trade up to No. 7 to get one of the two. Outside of that? Denver’s been connected to the corners, and word has circulated that Vic Fangio is high on Parsons, who could help ease the potential 2022 exit of Von Miller.
First round: 10th
Total picks: 10
Needs: CB, OL, DT, edge
What you need to know: The expectation is a corner will come off the board at No. 10, to the point that other corner-hungry teams have explored moving up to leapfrog the Cowboys. I’ve heard Dallas most connected to Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, who would be a middle-of-the-fairway pick and an ideal fit for Dan Quinn’s new defense, though I’d assume South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn would be in play too. If not a corner? Maybe an offensive lineman.
New York Giants
First round: 11th
Total picks: 6
Needs: Edge, CB, OL
What you need to know: This could be where the edge rushers start to come off the board, and if I had to pick it would be between Miami’s Jaelan Phillips and Michigan’s Kwity Paye. Phillips, based on tape, is the best pass rusher and a top 10 player in the draft—but there’s a lot of background to sort through with him (he’s seen as a good-hearted kid, who’s battled some demons, and he’s been upfront with teams about it). Paye, meanwhile, would be a safer play, but probably with a little less upside.
First round: 12th
Total picks: 11
Needs: CB, WR, OL
What you need to know: As usual, GM Howie Roseman’s been active in making trade calls, and word is that a move up might be for a corner. There’s a decent chance that neither Surtain nor Horn will make it here, and there’s a sizable dropoff after those two. And while we’re here, two other things I’d mention: One, with Roseman, you can’t rule out a linemen on either side of the ball, and both of Philly’s groups are getting a little long in the tooth. And two, more than a couple people I talked to connected the Eagles to Bama dynamo Jaylen Waddle.
Los Angeles Chargers
First round: 13th
Total picks: 9
Needs: OL, edge, CB, TE
What you need to know: The same way teams are saying corner for the Cowboys, they’re saying offensive line for the Chargers. Would they make a short move into the top 10 if Sewell slipped a little, and reunite him with fellow former Oregon Duck Justin Herbert? I wouldn’t rule that out. As it stands here, barring Slater sliding, the Chargers would probably be looking at USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker or Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw.
First round: 14th
Total picks: 10
Needs: edge, OL, CB, S
What you need to know: The Vikings are another team that’s been making trade calls, and with their wealth of picks, they’d have the flexibility to go either way. If they stick at No. 14, I’d think they’ll take some sort of lineman—and Phillips and Vera-Tucker are two names I’ve heard them linked to.
New England Patriots
First round: 15th
Total picks: 10
Needs: QB, CB, OT
What you need to know: The Patriots have at least touched base with teams in the top 10, though I spoke with one Sunday that was skeptical of how serious they are about trading up. I have heard New England connected to Horn, though I don’t think he’ll make it this far down the board. Of course, the big question on most teams’ minds is whether or not Bill Belichick will get aggressive if, say, Fields is there around No. 7 or 8.
First round: 16th
Total picks: 6
Needs: CB, RB, S
What you need to know: One Alabama skill player I’ve heard they love (Waddle) probably won’t be here. Another Alabama skill player I’ve heard they like (Harris) might be a little bit of a reach here. And there probably won’t be a corner worth taking a swing on here—unless they’re O.K. with the medicals of Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley. Given that they only have six picks, and reside right at the cliff, where teams are going to be running out of first-round-graded players, a trade one way or the other might make sense for GM Steve Keim.
Las Vegas Raiders
First round: 17th
Total picks: 8
Needs: LB, OT, DT
What you need to know: Given their losses on the offensive line, someone like Darrisaw could make sense for the Raiders. But keep an eye on Kentucky LB Jamin Davis right in this area—he’d be a good fit for new DC Gus Bradley’s front, maybe in a Bruce Irvin type of role, and has been great with teams in meetings after crushing his pro day.
Washington Football Team
First round: 19th
Total picks: 8
Needs: OT, LB, QB
What you need to know: I don’t think the Football Team will trade up for a QB here—my sense is Ron Rivera is content to build up the rest of the roster first, and create a better situation for whoever the quarterback of the future is, whenever he comes along. Maybe one will slip, but probably not. Most likely, I see someone like Davis or Darrisaw landing here to fill a need.
First round: 20th
Total picks: 8
Needs: OL, CB, WR, QB
What you need to know: As far as I can tell, the Bears haven’t yet started calling around to teams in the upper reaches of the draft—maybe that’ll come, it just hasn’t yet. If they stick here, the supply at corner, receiver and on the offensive line should dictate where they go. Florida’s Kadarius Toney could be an interesting Tyreek Hill type of gadget player for a coach, in Matt Nagy, who was with Hill in Kansas City. It’d also complement what they already have at the position and help new QB Andy Dalton.
First round: 21st
Total picks: 6
Needs: LT, edge, S
What you need to know: The first two needs are obvious ones and, right now, my guess is that an edge rusher like Georgia’s Azeez Olujari might make more sense than a tackle—especially when you consider there’s more depth on the offensive line in this year’s class than there is in the defensive line, and the Colts are picking at a point where the talent across the board starts to flatten out.
First round: 22nd
Total picks: 9
Needs: CB, WR, edge, OT
What you need to know: The Titans have a lot of needs for a team that’s been as good as they have been the last two years—the result of the departure of guys like Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler and Corey Davis, as well as the huge first-round miss on Isaiah Wilson. So interestingly, it’s two hybrid players that I’ve heard mentioned for Tennessee, one being Owusu-Koramoah as a linebacker/safety, and another being a do-everything safety in TCU’s Trevon Moehrig. Both players are heady and dependable, and could lead the rebuilding of the team’s secondary.
First round: 24th
Total picks: 8
Needs: RB, OL, CB, edge
What you need to know: This is another playoff team with a relatively surprising number of needs. One player I’ve heard Mike Tomlin likes (Harris) would very much fill one need, and give new OC Matt Canada a real bell cow. Another (Davis) plays a position the team is well-stocked at, and seems less likely as the pick. (Once upon a time I mocked Mac Jones to them.)
First round: 26th
Total picks: 9
Needs: LB, DT, edge, CB
What you need to know: The Browns have built up the roster to where they don’t have to force needs, and can get a year ahead of a potential hole. So a developmental pass rusher like Oweh to play behind Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney this year, and replace Clowney next year, would make a lot of sense. This, too, is in the range where the second wave of corners (Northwestern’s Greg Newsome, Georgia’s Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell, Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph) could start going. And the Browns could use some depth there.
First round: 27th, 31st
Total picks: 9
Needs: edge, DL, OT, WR
What you need to know: With Orlando Brown traded, and Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue having left in free agency, the Ravens will need to get some big men in the building. So if Oweh, Miami’s Greg Rousseau or Oklahoma State OT Teven Jenkins are still around at No. 27, I think they’d be in play. Toney and Moehrig would be interesting fits too. And how the Ravens look at Alabama’s Christian Barmore, if he makes it here, with two picks to spend, should be telling for teams, given Baltimore’s connections in Tuscaloosa.
New Orleans Saints
First round: 28th
Total picks: 8
Needs: CB, WR, LB
What you need to know: Despite their cap crisis, the Saints’ roster remains in really solid shape—with the contract situations of Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, and Marcus Williams the next thing on the docket for the team’s brass. The most likely play here for New Orleans is at corner, where they may have to decide between taking a medical risk on Farley (“He’s the most talented of the three,” said one GM, comparing him to Horn and Surtain), or Newsome or Campbell.
Green Bay Packers
First round: 29th
Total picks: 10
Needs: OT, CB, DL, WR
What you need to know: At this point, the Packers would probably be reaching on one of the first three position listed. As for the fourth, I’ve mentioned in a few places that I think Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore could be the fourth receiver taken. And he’d be a fun fit here, given one comp that I got for him: Randall Cobb.
First round: 30th
Total picks: 7
Needs: CB, edge, DT, RB
What you need to know: A second-tier corner probably would make the most sense, but Clemson’s Travis Etienne was a name raised to me for Buffalo. And the comp I’ve gotten most for him is Alvin Kamara—a player you have to have a plan for, but one who can be incredibly difficult for defenses to handle. Adding Etienne to that skill group, as an underneath weapon with the Bills’ ability to go downfield, would be pretty tantalizing.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First round: 32nd
Total picks: 8
Needs: edge, CB, QB
What you need to know: With all 22 starters returning, the Bucs are in position to look a year ahead on some needs—so I’d think they’ll give a look to adding a corner (with some contract situations brewing there) or edge rusher (Tampa’s a little older on its defensive front) at the bottom of the first round.
Top pick: 56th
Total picks: 3
Needs: CB, LB, OL
What you need to know: John Schneider’s a master at turning two picks into 12, but he’ll be challenged this year with only a second-, a fourth- and a seventh-rounder to work with. Getting a back-seven defensive player would have to be a priority, with what Seattle does have.
Los Angeles Rams
Top pick: 57th
Total picks: 6
Needs: Edge, LB, DL
What you need to know: Some of the strengths in depth with this year’s class don’t mesh great with the Rams’ needs, which works out fine for the team in a year in which they’re relatively bare on picks. Getting a young offensive lineman on Day 2 would be smart.
Kansas City Chiefs
Top pick: 58th
Total picks: 8
Needs: OT, edge, CB
What you need to know: The offensive-line rebuild is just about complete, but getting a young tackle, guard or center, with one of the team’s two second-rounders would make sense, as would taking advantage of the depth at corner in this year’s class somewhere on Day 2.
Top pick: 67th
Total picks: 8
Needs: Interior OL, WR, TE
What you need to know: This is the start of fairly significant rebuild, so I’d doubt that Nick Caserio will focus too much on positional needs. And picking where they’re picking, I’d think there’ll be a pretty serious emphasis on getting the right sorts of people in the building.
JIM NAGY ON SCOUTING IN 2021
Few people have a better feel for this year’s draft class than Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. In any year, he has to do a lot of work to plan his game—from picking who to invite to getting those guys to commit to actually pulling off the event. But this year, for obvious reasons, was different. Grading the class was harder. Convincing the kids to come was thornier. And actually getting the game played was no picnic either.
Along the way, Nagy learned a lot about the group, because he had to. And because I knew that he’d have that sort of perspective, I wanted to get his take on the group. He was nice enough to oblige. Here’s what he titled his “random scouting notes from an atypical draft process” …
• Teams feel like they know these players better than any class in recent memory, which makes sense since scouts were homebound all fall and had ample time to just watch tape. Rather than spending three to four hours per day behind the wheel traveling from school to school, scouts spent the newfound time digging more into junior and sometimes even sophomore tape.
• Most teams have taken more of an “all-hands-on-deck” approach this year when it comes to information gathering. In a normal year, area scouts and over-top scouts share the responsibility of gathering intel on players. This year most teams have included the entire staff—both scouting and coaching—to dig up as much character/makeup intel as possible. If anyone on the staff has a connection with someone at a particular school then they have been charged with using those relationships to find out as much as possible about the players. From an NFL perspective, one positive result of the growing trend of college coaches jumping from job to job is that it creates a broader network of sources that are connected to these prospects. Teams are grateful that colleges setup Zoom calls back in the fall but most agree those calls covered only the basic nuts and bolts (i.e. family structure, personality traits, etc.) and not the critical stuff like work habits, passion for the game and football intelligence that matter the most.
• Zooming has served its purpose this year but most teams feel like there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction with players, which happens in a normal year at all-star games, the combine, pro days, personal workouts and 30 visits.
• Limited combine medicals is a big deal, and it could cause many players with medical flags to slide more than in a normal year. Teams are being more conservative with medical grades, since their own trainers and doctors have not had the opportunity to personally evaluate them. One thing teams have done to overcome the lack of medical data is inquire with trainers and pro liaisons about how much practice time players have missed over the course of their careers. Most trainers do not share specific injury histories, but they do catalog missed time and that is arguably just as important as the medical file itself.
• Some teams did formal self-scouting of their school sources in an attempt to identify the most reliable staff members at each school. Teams also did research on schools with the best track-records of producing “make-it” players.
• One of the biggest pieces of missing info this year when it comes to a player’s football makeup is practice habits. This is not something scouts normally should have to ask about because in most cases, at least at the FBS level, they attend two to three practices per fall, and they can see effort, attitude, urgency and coachability for themselves. With scouts being relegated strictly to live game exposures on Saturdays, teams have very little idea how these players approach on-field work each day. Practice habits are something most scouts would rather see for themselves than hear about from someone else.
• Perhaps the players impacted the most this year by the unusual predraft process are the late-round/PFA (priority free agent) types that tested well on pro day but couldn’t take 30 visits to team facilities to get full medicals or couldn’t have position coaches dispatched to work them out individually. These are usually the late risers in the process that make up the bulk of the seventh round, and this year they were not able to gain as much traction as in a typical year.
• There will likely be less risk-taking on players with character red flags this year. A couple names that came up consistently during conversations with teams were recent first-round misses DeAndre Baker and Isaiah Wilson.
It wouldn’t shock me if Julio Jones gets traded at some point this offseason. I’m told the Falcons are listening to offers on the five-time All-Pro as part of a larger effort to clean up the salary cap—as it stands right now, the Falcons wouldn’t even be able to sign their draft class. Basically, the new brass told other teams they’d listen to offers on any of the more expensive players on the roster. They got some interest in linebacker Deion Jones, then decided to restructure his contract and keep him. They’ve restructured Matt Ryan and left tackle Jake Matthews as well. Calls have come in on Jones too, but his deal hasn’t been reworked yet. What would it take to get Jones out of Atlanta? My guess is a first-round pick, or some equivalent. He’s 32, but he’s still shown he can play when healthy, and the three years left on his deal are reasonable ($15.3 million this year, $11.513 million in 2022 and $11.513 million in 2023). Now, if you look at the makeup of his contract, the Falcons would want to wait until after June 1 to actually execute any sort of deal (which would soften the cap blow). But a deal could be agreed to before then, and these sorts of ideas are always batted around during draft week. So it’ll be interesting to see if anything on Jones picks up in the coming days.
I think you have to look at the Chiefs’ trade for Orlando Brown as an acknowledgement of where they were sitting in the draft. Offensive linemen are always going to be a hot commodity on the last weekend in April because of the relative scarcity of good ones, and Kansas City’s decision-making this month is affirmation of it. I’m told the Chiefs looked seriously at the idea of making a move up in the draft—and put some feelers out to other teams on it—but a couple factors really wound up shifting their focus thereafter.
1) Coming from No. 31, going up was going to be expensive. In fact, just on the traditional value chart alone, they’d have had to give up their second-rounder just to get to No. 20.
2) Even at, say, No. 20, there was no guarantee that a tackle worth a first-rounder would be there, with Sewell, Slater, Vera-Tucker and Darrisaw all likely gone by then.
The downside to dealing for Brown is, of course the fact that he’s going into a contract year. And now, because he’s been traded for to be a left tackle, he’ll be looking to get paid like one—and a rookie would be much less expensive. But the Chiefs have him at $3.384 million this year and can franchise tag him next year at a about $16.7 million. Because they’ve already got more than $200 million in cash committed to this year, I think it’s unlikely they’ll do a deal with Brown now, and that’ll give Brown a year to prove to be a worthy long-term answer at tackle. Will he do that? I’m not sure. Most teams looking at Brown thought he was in a perfect scheme for his skill set the last three years (the Ravens’ option-centered offense calls for maulers more than athletes at the line spots), and that was as a right tackle, so how he’ll adjust to a new position and much different system is an open question. But in this case, it’s probably smart to trust the judgment of Andy Reid and Brett Veach that Brown can play a position he says, as a lefty, that he’s always been more comfortable playing. It is, after all, hard to find left tackles. This is a worthwhile swing at getting one.
Baltimore’s decision to move on from Brown is pretty simple to explain. Last year, the Ravens inked Ronnie Stanley—one of the best left tackles in football—to a five-year, $98.75 million extension. That, of course, is a pretty good indication that Brown was never going to be a left tackle in Baltimore, which is why the Ravens were never paying him at that rate. The Ravens also just did a big deal with Marlon Humphrey and have a few more coming down the pike (Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews). Bottom line, Brown was almost certainly going to be gone after the 2021 season. And, best case scenario, they would’ve gotten a third-round comp pick in 2023 for him. That’d probably wind up being a pick somewhere around 100th, and all this illustrates why the Ravens had their feet planted on the asking price (a second-rounder). And what they got was, in essence, just that. Here are the details of the trade …
• Chiefs get: Brown, 2021 second-round pick, 2022 sixth-round pick.
• Ravens get: 2021 first-round pick, 2021 third-round pick, 2021 fourth-round pick, 2022 fifth-round pick.
Obviously, the math here is complicated, but as the Chiefs saw it, the Ravens’ return equated to the 45th pick in the draft. So, in essence, Baltimore gave up a year of service from Brown and moved (most of) the comp up two years and about 55 picks in value. Or you could look at it and say they gained a three and a four, and flipped a two into a one. Which is what made it worth the Ravens’ while to do the deal. Now, they just have to replace a good player.
I could listen to Steve Sarkisian talk about offense all day. If you missed Thursday’s GamePlan, I’d encourage you to check it out. The Texas coach took us through his experience with Mac Jones over the last two years, with Sarkisian having served as his offensive coordinator at Bama. And before I let him go last week, I figured it’d be fun for him to take us through the other elite skill guys he coached in Tuscaloosa. Here’s his scouting on Smith, Waddle and Harris.
• Smith: “He’s a No. 1 receiver. He plays outside, he plays in the slot, never once questioned his toughness. I mean, the guy was a gunner on the punt team for four years. He was a returner. He blocked. He went across the middle. He caught deep balls. He got underneath routes and ran with the ball. I mean, he did everything. And the biggest thing about him to me is his football IQ is just so high that I don’t even know if you can put a price tag on just how smart he is—how to run routes based off of leverage, how to run routes based off of the other routes that are being ran around him, he thinks like a quarterback and knows how to get open. And he’s got an amazing catch radius. He’s got long arms and great hands.”
• Waddle: “Extremely explosive. I would say, I had a chance to work with Reggie Bush for three years at USC, it’s probably the closest thing, if not the same, from an explosiveness standpoint as Reggie was. Every time Jaylen got the ball in his hands, you thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he might score.’ And that to me was what really separated him. And I thought the one thing this year that helped us, that helped him, for his future, we played him outside quite a bit the first half of the year before he got hurt. And I think he showed he’s a real wide receiver. He’s not a gadget player. He’s a real wide receiver that can run routes and can make plays, whether in the slot or outside. “
• Harris: “Najee’s a big, physical back, very tough, tough to get on the ground. For a guy who had as many carries as he had over two years, never missed a practice and practiced very hard. I think the one thing that, I don’t know if it goes unnoticed anymore, is something that people may not give him enough credit for—he’s a tremendous route-runner and he has exceptional hands. This guy, we threw him the ball a lot out of the backfield over the last two years and he made a lot of plays for us not just running the ball but catching the ball out of the backfield.”
While we’re there, the weight questions coming out of the medical combine in Indy add an interesting wrinkle to this year process. The 150 players in Indy over those three days were all measured out, and there were a few that got the attention of the NFL. Smith landing at 166 pounds was noteworthy—in large part because he hadn’t gotten on a scale through the predraft process. And he wasn’t the only one. Louisville sparkplug Tutu Atwell landing at 149 pounds was eye-opening. Wilson was down four pounds from BYU’s pro day (dropping from 214 to 210). Collins was up 11 pounds from Tulsa’s pro day (259 to 270). Michigan OT Jalen Mayfield, who’s had a rough couple of months (likely falling from the first round), helped himself by cutting down eight pounds (326 to 318). So what does all this mean? Well, one exec I talked to about the numbers this week told me he was going to cut the prospects a break on these, to a point, because he felt like fluctuation could be a result of players being away from the training facilities they spent January, February and March in for the stretch run of the draft cycle, and being pulled in a lot of different directions. So that Smith is 166, Atwell is 149 and Collins is 270 is worth teams investigating. But I’m not sure it’s going make too much of a different on draft weekend.
There’s something Robert Kraft said to me last month that I just can’t shake, in regards to the Patriots’ quarterback situation. Here’s the full, in-context quote from the New England owner on the team’s splurge into free agency: “We’re spoiled. We got used to winning all the time. And that’s our objective. It’s a very competitive sport. It’s all geared to having every team be 8–8 over a long balance of time, the way the draft is, the way we all have a salary cap. This was a unique year in the sense that the cap came down, and because we had so many players opt out last year, then have a non-continuation of the quarterback salary at the higher level, it created uniquely a big cap opportunity and I think it was a chance for us to recharge. We’ve never done anything like this in all the years I’ve owned the team. So what we did, as we were competing for new players, normally in free agency, you’ll have 10 or 12 teams going after it. Here, we had two or three. I just want to compliment our staffing, our organization, Bill [Belichick] and the whole scouting and personnel people, for having a real team effort.” Now, here’s what I’m getting at: The non-continuation of the quarterback salary at a higher level. I had a team run the numbers for me over the weekend. Some interesting facts from this study on New England’s QB spending …
• In 2000 (the year before Tom Brady became the starter), the Patriots’ quarterback spending accounted for 15.71% of their salary cap. It hasn’t topped 15% in any single year since.
• Only once since then has the Patriots’ cap spending on quarterbacks been above 14%, and you get there only if you fudge the uncapped year of 2010. If you average the 2009 and ’11 caps, then the Patriots’ QB spending in ’10 accounted for 14.73% of the imaginary cap that year. That was also the year Brady signed a contract that made him the highest-paid player in football. It was the only such deal Brady ever signed in New England.
• So how remarkable is it that, from 2001 to now, the Patriots have never had more than 14% of their cap filled by their quarterbacks? Eight teams spent more than 14% of their caps on quarterbacks in 2018, nine did in ’19, eight did in ’20, and nine are on pace to in ’21. Remember, New England got Hall of Fame quarterback play at these numbers.
• The Patriots’ percentage has dropped in four straight years, from 13.22% to 13.00% to 8.72% (last year’s number, which included Brady’s dead-cap charge) to this year’s current number: 3.95%.
So if you look at all that, and add it to Kraft’s words, you see how all of this is strategic. And it might color, too, why the Patriots have approached the quarterback market this offseason far more cautiously than the way they dove in at other positions. We’ll see if that changes when we get to draft day.
The rules about players buying out inventory to change their jersey numbers should be amended, at least for a year. And I’d even think about changing it permanently so players have at least one shot to change their number over the course of their careers. I think we can all agree that the NFL handing Dalvin Cook a $1.5 million bill (per Pro Football Talk) for changing his number from No. 33 to No. 4 is absurd—especially when you consider teams aren’t forced to buy out inventory that way when they cut players (making jerseys and associated apparel similarly worthless). I’m not saying guys should be able to just switch every year (I wouldn’t care, but a one-time provision would take care of that), I just don’t see why it’s a big deal letting them do it now with the change in the rules over the numbers. Particularly when the NFL figures to make bank on skill players moving their jerseys into the single digits.
While we’re on the rule changes, I really hope the NFL allows for the replay official to play an important role right away in the wake of the league approving expanding that official’s role. I still think it’s absurd that we can’t just go to the Ravens’ booth umpire proposal, and that the league and competition committee’s slow slog to implementing one is among the most ridiculous things I’ve seen in 16 years covering the league. But that Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Ravens coach John Harbaugh were the ones working with the competition committee to make progress on this front—they’ve been champions for various SkyJudge-style proposals—gives me hope we’ll eventually get there. The important language, to me, in how the rule adjustment was written (and I’m told the coaches specifically worked on this) is at the end of this passage: “[The replay official can] advise the game officials on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video is present and/or to address game administration issues including, but not limited to …” From there, it details nine specific areas where the replay official can step in, but, again, doesn’t limit the official from stepping in on other matters. And that’s the whole idea here. No one’s looking for a backseat driver upstairs. The idea, all along, of the coaches’ subcommittee was to give the officials the benefit that about 20 million people have for every NFL game, and that’s the benefit of getting to see any mistakes made from a bunch of different angles in crystal-clear HD. Bottom line, if a miss is egregious, the person upstairs should catch it quickly, buzz down and correct it. And that’ll save coaches from having to challenge such obvious things, and the officials from having to be on SportsCenter on Monday morning. Why this is so hard for the league to digest is something I’ll never get.
I think the Browns’ making Baker Mayfield the first 2018 rookie to have his fifth-year option picked up was a nice gesture. Cleveland didn’t have to do it until May 3, and Mayfield’s option is just one of two picked up thus far (teammate Denzel Ward’s is the other, while the Raiders already extended their 2018 first-rounder, Kolton Miller). Lots of teams seem to be waiting until after the draft—and this is, to be sure, a tougher year to make these decisions, because the cap figures to be tight again in 2022, and the options are fully-guaranteed upon execution for the first time. So for Cleveland to take care of Mayfield ahead of time sends a nice message to the quarterback himself and the locker room. It makes all the sense in the world, too, since it’s not like the Browns are taking a quarterback in the first round on Thursday. And for what it’s worth, in a vacuum, the one year at $18.58 million for 2022 is less than 16 quarterbacks are making per year now, so it’s not like that’s a backbreaking number.
I’ve got one last thing on Julian Edelman’s retirement. And it comes via text from Devin McCourty, his teammate of 11 years: “Jules was an awesome teammate—his grit and toughness showed through the whole team on offense, defense and special teams. He was amazing for me, because he always did everything full speed and made me better as a player every day. Then, growing as players and men together over the years, [we have] great memories.” We always hear coaches talk about “culture,” and this, to me, is it. It’s finding players who demand things are done a certain way not because they’re telling anyone to do things that way, but because they’re doing things that way themselves. I’d imagine Belichick would read that quote and tell you that element of Edelman, always pushing his own standards (and, in turn, everyone else’s) is exactly what he’d look for in any player at any position. And I don’t think having guys like Edelman is a small part of the Patriots’ success over the last two decades.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) I got my second COIVD vaccine on Saturday. So far, I feel alright, other than that feeling of being punched in the arm that shots will give sometimes. And mostly, I’m excited for all of us. Feels like, finally, we’re getting really close to being out of this mess.
2) I think the Lakers’ management of the regular season, and the resulting likely need to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs, and for every round thereafter, should be a fascinating test case for NBA coaches moving forward in how title-level teams are handled.
3) The Stone Cold Steve Austin doc on A&E was super interesting. I haven’t followed wrestling in forever, so it brought me back—and I don’t think you’d even have to be a fan to get a lot out of it.
4) I thought this quote from UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin on teams that joined the Super League was hilarious: “Everyone has to take consequences for what they did and we cannot pretend nothing happened. You cannot do something like that and just say: ‘I’ve been punished because everybody hates me.’ They don’t have problems because of anyone else but themselves. It’s not O.K. what they did and we will see in next few days what we have to do.” Anyone else get school principal vibes from ol’ Aleksander there?
5) Remember the highlight videos of Peyton and Eli’s nephew Arch Manning? He’s now the third-ranked recruit in America in the high school class of 2023, per the 247 Sports composite, behind a defensive end from Georgia named Lebbeus Overton and a defensive tackle from Alabama named Peter Woods. Young Manning holds offers (per 247) from Alabama, Boston College, Duke, Georgia, LSU, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma.
6) I got out with my son and a couple of his friends to the Boston College spring game on Saturday, and it was a blast to see football in person again. I’ve mentioned it in this space before, but Jeff Hafley’s doing a heck of a job there, and I think eventually he could wind up back in the NFL.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Turns out football players are as sick of it as the rest of us.
It’s almost too bad that was a one-time thing.
Very well done by Grier in the way of the Derek Chauvin verdict.
It’s a little corny, sure, but I agree with this.
This was pretty good …
… As was this …
… And this.
Not that you need to be told this was staged, but the fact that the GM is leaving in broad daylight during draft month is a pretty good tell.
A work of art.
Just an amazing moment, and reminds me of how great it was, as a kid, to have the draft all day on a Saturday in April. I genuinely miss the noon kickoff for it—and I can say that even though I know and appreciate why it’s done the way it is now.
I’d imagine that ball had to be MOVING coming from 600 feet.
Maybe I’m a sap, but I think Belichick’s long-standing connection to the Naval Academy is really, really cool.
There’s a good reminder in this cover.
I think that makes Patrick Peterson officially the first to go single digit—and I love that, because of the meaning of No. 7 at LSU (Ja’Marr Chase was going to wear it this year before he opted out).
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It’s draft week, so we’re going to have a lot for you here on the site. And I’m going to do a couple things a little differently.
• Daily Periscopes: I’m bringing those back for the week because I see it as a good, efficient way to get to all your questions. Follow me on Twitter to catch them all.
• Video mailbag: This will take the place of the regular Wednesday mailbag column. We figured it’d be a fun adjustment to the week for all of you.
• Mock draft: My tentative plan is to post it on Tuesday.
• MAQB/GamePlan: You’ll get the former at its regularly scheduled time on Monday and the latter a day early, on Wednesday.
• “What I’m Hearing” columns: These quick-hitters will come to you later in the week, covering the latest as the rumor mill churns.
And I’ll be where you normally find me on TV and radio in the days to come, plus we’ll have some video elements ready to roll on draft night.
Anyone who knows me knows I’ve always loved the draft, going all the way back to when I was a little kid, and it’s become of my favorite work weeks of the year. Can’t wait to have all of you along for the ride again.
More NFL Draft Coverage:
* Rosenberg: The Unrivaled Arrival of Trevor Lawrence
* Vrentas: MMQB Mock Draft 3.0; 49ers Pick Justin Fields
* Prewitt: What Happens to the Prospects Who Opted Out?
* Orr: Eric Stokes Is a Potential Steal Hiding in Plain Sight